By Maia Jasper White
Disclaimer: The opinions that follow are my own. I do not wish to offend or belittle those who feel otherwise. Feel free to file what follows under “Truism: All Art Is Subjective,” and read no further. Just bear in mind — that same file tab could read instead: “Cliche: Art’s Alleged Intrinsic Value Spares It From Criticism.”
So you hate modern music. I hate it sometimes, too. The purpose of this post is to validate the discomfort so many of us feel towards new music. It is not to tell you to swallow it because it’s good for you, like musical Cod Liver Oil. My hope is that it will give you a sense of the kind of new music we will (and won’t) present.
Salastina will always champion contemporary music. This is vital to our art, and a huge part of what we are about. I love working with composers. (In fact, I am married to one.) I am a musician precisely because of my love and respect for composition, and my drive to share its beauty with others.
But I really hate modern music sometimes. I hate it not in spite of, but because of, what makes me love music the rest of the time.
The presenter’s challenge: whom, or what, do we serve?
If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage. You can’t walk away until it’s over.
And that’s to say nothing of a unique quality of hearing itself: we never habituate to jarring sounds. Imagine living next door to the construction of a skyscraper. No amount of time can render the aural assault of a relentless jackhammer into white noise. (The same can be said for an education: we can’t be “taught” to find it beautiful or interesting.) Ugly wallpaper, on the other hand, recedes from awareness with relative speed.
I can’t tell you how many times concert goers approach me and share their distaste for the modern. Even my own parents have avoided our new music concerts. They’ll give excuses like: “we’re going to pass on this one. That’s just not the sort of music we’re interested in.”
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an early 20th century philanthropist, was a champion of modern music. With humility, she made a case for new music that still carries weight today:
“My plan for modern music is not that we should like it, not necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.”
This noble sentiment puts taste and comprehension aside out of a sense of duty to the generation of new art. Many of the orchestras and chamber series in which I make my living adhere to this belief. As a result, I’ve played countless “challenging” pieces over the years. They’ve ranged from profound to insufferable.
Posterity is a far better judge than I could ever hope to be. And Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment is self-evident. But duty calls me in other ways, too. As a presenter, my primary concern is the audience experience. Seeing to it that audiences understand and are moved by music is precisely what Salastina stands for. If we aren’t communicating something most could find beautiful and meaningful, then what’s the point?
Grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde. Most audiences don’t. Salastina’s answer to this musical double-bind is simple. We only play new music we love and believe in. And if we do decide to take a risk, we hope you’ll trust us.
The Kind of Thing We’ll Never Do
To illustrate, what follows is an experience I had at a recent concert. (Spoiler Alert: it was mind-bendingly aggravating.)
I don’t want to engage in slander. Whatever I may think of a particular piece, I respect that a human being poured blood, sweat, and tears into its creation. For these reasons, I will not share specifics.
Several months ago, my husband Philip and I left LA for a weekend getaway in an major US cultural center. At our hotel, I happened upon a concert advertisement for a performance by a local contemporary music ensemble. It featured the music of a composer whose name I knew, but whose work I did not. We decided to attend.
Being tourists, we underestimated how much time it would take to Uber to the venue. We were a few minutes late. We tip toed into a warehouse, replete with concrete floors, string lights, and artisanal muffins. This Instagram-worthy backdrop had been designed to attract a crowd that never came.
Because we’d arrived late, we weren’t able to read the programs before the concert began. Blank slates, we had no idea what was up next.
A small string chamber orchestra entered the stage. Each musician began to play a distinct musical gesture. Changes in these gestures were so subtle that they were imperceptible. The chord progression, while pleasant, was static.
Meanwhile, an abstract film played on a screen behind the orchestra. It was clear after a few minutes that this was a slow-moving audio-visual meditation. I was curious to see where this primordial ooze of sound and color might evolve. I admit: I felt a bit of a lift for “getting” something avant-garde. It appealed to my intellectual vanity.
About five minutes in, I began to feel restless. The more mature part of me gently persuaded me to give it a chance.
Twenty static minutes later, my irritation was mounting. If anything in the piece had evolved, it was imperceptible to me. I was beginning to resent the monotony.
Twenty tedious minutes after that, my patience was wearing thinner and thinner. My heart bled for the poor cellists. They’d been playing the same pattern over and over again for over 45 minutes. (“Oppress’d so hard they could not stand… Let my people go!“)
Eyes bulging, I looked at my husband. It was clear he shared my feelings. We got up and left after a few more interminable minutes. Thankfully, we were sitting near enough to the back that no one noticed.
During a considerably more entertaining activity (dinner), we read the composer’s program notes. In them, he’d shared something to the effect of:
Throughout history, human art has focused on the dramatic. In this piece, I intend to convey how my emotions change throughout the course of an hour in a more lifelike way.
To pit one’s work against the entirety of art is as pompous as it is absurd. One need not bother making the claim that it is better for it. The comparison alone betrays an important implication: different is better. No wonder the piece was the sonic equivalent of watching paint dry.
The program notes continued:
In the end, my piece is like life. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to go a very short distance.
This is a thoughtful and sobering sentiment. And to be fair, it was far more beautifully stated by the composer in his original program notes. But did it have to become a tedious hour-long sonic experiment? This was pretentious self-indulgence taking cover behind superficial depth. All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutionalized arrogance.
An Infinite Variety of Music
A few months ago, I listened to a fantastic course on iTunes U: Yale’s Introduction to Psychology. One of my favorite lectures was about language. It gave me a new way to make sense of why so much contemporary music communicates nothing meaningful to me.
Inherent to all languages are three fundamentals: phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes are the most basic differences between sounds. Morphemes are the smallest units of words that have meaning to us. (If you speak English, you know tens of thousands of them.) And syntax is the structure that strings words together. Thanks to syntax, sequences of words become intelligible thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
All languages contain a finite amount of phonemes and morphemes. Likewise, languages are bound by the governing rules of syntax. But within these constraints, the possibility for expression and understanding is endless. This is the miracle of language.
I realized that musical language has its own phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes could be timbre, articulation, and dynamic differences. Morphemes could be pitches and chords. Syntax could be the structure that brings meaning to these things. Chord progressions, rhythm, voice leading, counterpoint, form.
Like English, Urdu, and Korean, musical language is limitless. Not in spite of, but because of, the finiteness of its fundamentals.
In An Infinite Variety of Music (1966), Leonard Bernstein writes:
“[Music] is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living. The only reality these tones can have is form — that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect… One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form… The moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying them their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.”
In other words, abstracting music — which is, by definition, already abstract — castrates it. Like language, music relies on form to mean anything to us at all. When overly distorted, all we hear is gibberish.
I have long rejected the avant gardist’s implicit credo:
Certain building blocks of music have played themselves out. They are no longer meaningful or relevant. Above all else, each artist must create something original for and of himself. Only this is worthy of respect. It doesn’t matter if people don’t understand it.
There’s a lot right and a lot wrong with this. Every artist must be true to himself. To what he wants to share with others. To take what has come before, and run with it.
But to value rugged individualism above communication is to pervert these noble pursuits. Does an author need to invent a new language to tell an original story? Is the organic evolution of any wide-spoken language ever dictated by one person? Music that rebels against cogency fails to move us. Worse still, it has a distancing effect. Is that a desired outcome of our supposedly universal art?
I do not mean to discourage the flowering of musical language over time. Nothing is static — not the words we use, the notes we play, nor the world in which each resonate. I am simply not convinced that authentic, rich self-expression depends upon the continual invention of a priori languages. Musical Klingon comes to mind — complex, efficient, and even beautiful as many Trekkies purport Klingon to be.
For better or for worse, we Earthlings have a few immutable aesthetic preferences. Here’s Bernstein:
“It can be no mere coincidence that after half a century of radical experiment the best and best-loved works in atonal or 12-tone or serial idioms are those works which seem to have preserved, against all odds, some backdrop of tonality…
It has occasionally occurred to me that music could conceivably exist, some distant day, ultimately detached from tonality… Perhaps we are some day to be freed from the tyranny of time, the dictatorship of the harmonic series. Perhaps. But meanwhile we are still earth-based, earth-bound, far from any Omega point, caught up in such old-fashioned things as human relationships, ideological, international, and interracial strife…
No, we are still earth creatures, still needful of human warmth and the need to communicate among ourselves. For which the Lord be praised. And as long as there is reaching out of one of us to another, there will be the healing comfort of tonal response.”
I am not advocating that art music plummet to the lowest common denominator. New Music’s Ivory Tower is awash in a sea of drivel with mass popular appeal. But why should “accessible” remain a bad word as it pertains to art music? When will a natural preference for beauty and heart not merit condescension?
A few days ago, Meredith and I discussed this topic before a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. She expressed the discomfort she feels when contemporary music comes up in conversation with other musicians.
When it comes to taking a stand on contemporary music, we have two choices:
1. Admit to a preference for “pretty” music, and risk silent derision. Accept the possibility that we are shallow, and missing an intellectual chip. Live with icky, ungenerous feelings of contempt for self-indulgent composers. Risk the embarrassment of not appreciating something posterity will know to be genius. Judge ourselves for all of the above.
2. Overstate our belief in Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment. Accept that in so doing, we are distancing ourselves from the audiences we purport to serve. Live with icky feelings of insincerity, elitism, and fraudulence. Risk the embarrassment of failing to realize that the emperor has no clothes. Judge ourselves for all of the above.
Neither choice feels good. The awkward limbo between them isn’t any better. Even writing this post was difficult thanks to this polarization.
There does exist a bulletproof litmus test. One that transcends both over-generalizations. Like meeting a person or drinking a glass of wine, meaningful opinions are best made on a case-by-case basis. As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?
“I wish there were a better word for communication; I mean by it the tenderness we feel when we recognize and share with another human being a deep, unnameable, elusive emotional shape or shade. That is really what a composer is saying in his music: has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release? And when you react to (“like”) a piece of music, you are simply replying to the composer, yes… “
If we don’t say yes, then no — we won’t make you listen.
BY MAIA JASPER WHITE
The fine people at iCadenza asked me to write a guest blog post about “How to Start a Concert Series.” What I wrote centers around things I wish I’d known when we started, and advice for anyone starting their own series.
My post is up today. You can read it by clicking here.
By Maia Jasper White
Hi from El Niño-soaked Marin County! Philip and I are here catching our breath for two nights in the middle of a relentless few months of work. (Thankfully, oxygen is plentiful here.)
The past few weeks have found Kevin and I prepping for Salastina’s concert with Sarah Chang in Palm Springs later this month. Setting up adequate rehearsal time around 15 busy musicians’ schedules is like herding cats with ADHD. But all kvetching aside, I can’t wait for the week of March 21st — when our nightly rehearsals are slated to begin!
Sharing some of my favorite links from the week:
1. Cellist Steven Isserlis gives the “low, low, lowdown” on audition acceptances (and rejections) with humor, candor, and humility here.
2. My friend Conor Knighton, a college classmate with whom I reconnected here in LA, is on a year-long exploration of America’s national parks — “from Acadia to Zion” — for CBS Sunday Morning. Three segments have already aired. Catch them here, and follow his adventures (and many witticisms) on Instagram here.
3. Podcasts keep me sane, entertained, and most importantly, awake during long drives to and from work. This wonderful list of the best podcast episodes of 2015 includes many of my personal favorites (including “Belt Buckle,” “Living Room,” and “Entanglement”). I’m looking forward to brightening my commutes with some of the many great episodes I haven’t yet heard.
4. A beautiful piece about Maurice Sendak’s preoccupation with death and the grizzly — and how he tapped into an awareness more natural to children than we’d like to believe. (I’d forgotten about Sendak’s involvement with the performing and musical arts through his work turning “Where the Wild Things Are” into an opera.)
5. As a teacher, I find this article — about the detrimental effects of overly “coddling” students — thought-provoking. I have certainly had my fair share of experiences that back up the author’s argument. And I couldn’t agree more with the following:
“Teachers today have to navigate the minefield between the conflicting emotions of students and parents, and the responsibility to improve their students’ playing. The route to success requires complete honesty from the teacher, together with the appropriate compassion for the feelings of the young player.”
I’ll save a fuller weighing-in for its own post.
6. A bonus post-script, courtesy of our Resident Violist Meredith Crawford: puppies, or food?
By Maia Jasper White
Sharing a few lovely and important pieces from around the web.
The flavor of it:
“Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much “fleshing out” happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to “first-personalize” the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves. Some may think this both narcissistic and naïve, but ask yourself: What other means of propulsion can yield such encounters?
… We enter the bookstore, see the many volumes arrayed there, and think: so much to read, so little time. But books do not take time; they give time, they expand our resources of both heart and mind. It may sound paradoxical, but they are, in the last analysis, scientific, for they trace the far-flung route by which we come to understand our world and ourselves. They take our measure. And we are never through discovering who we are.”
2. This article, about the only playable Stradivarius guitar left in the world, includes a link to an exquisite performance on it.
3. Here is a stunning performance of a viola d’amore piece by one of my favorite living composers (and people), Reena Esmail. As per Reena’s usual: an exquisite intermarriage of Eastern and Western sounds. And I can’t say I’ve ever heard a viola d’amore played so virtuosically.
4. This touching and sobering piece is written by a professor of the History of Christianity — who was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer as a young mother. Poignantly enough, she is an expert in America’s “Prosperity Gospel” — which, under the looming shadow of her own mortality, she now relates to in new ways. It’s a beautiful read. It got me thinking about what it means to be “blessed” (and what we mean when we refer to ourselves as such); about our fragility and impermanence; and about how we cope with the inevitability of our finitude.
5. So as not to end on too bleak of a note: my new favorite cake recipe.
Hope to see you at our concert this Friday! (There may be cake.) -Maia
By Maia Jasper White
After the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, a Leonard Bernstein quotation began popping up in my Facebook feed and email inbox.
It felt true. It also felt hollow.
It encouraged and validated me. It also made me angry.
I was proud of my colleagues in the arts for floating this sentiment at that time. And yet, doing so seemed strangely distasteful and disingenuous. (The fact that this coincided with end-of-year fundraising appeals didn’t help matters.)
I went on to judge myself for being ungenerous towards said colleagues. And for not proclaiming the power of the arts at equal volume. Yet I also gave myself props for taking art for what it is, and not endowing it with over-reaching powers. For seeing that terror and ugliness in the world is a much bigger problem than art alone can ever hope to solve. In my mind, few things undermine the true power of art quite like overstating it. Suffice it to say that I found the quotation supremely unsatisfying.
A week or so later, I listened to a remarkable episode of Hidden Brain. (You can read a summary of Episode 13 here, although I recommend listening to the whole thing.) It helped me reconcile the contradictory feelings brought about by the Bernstein quotation.
The substance of the episode comes from anthropologist Scott Atran, who believes we err gravely in thinking that moderation is the salve to terror. Brainwashing and religious radicalization, he says, are not the driving forces behind this brutality. He believes that deeper psychological forces are at work. Ones that all human beings share. He quotes Terence, an ancient Roman playwright: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
His thinking behind this struck me as both sobering and provocative. At worst, this idea seems resigned and permissive. It allows for the worst from us. Yet it also seems sanguine and empowering. I had to concede that accepting what is allows for an informed response.
When I read about any act of violence, it is difficult not to feel ashamed to be part of the human race. The darker end of our bell curve confuses and distresses me. We all do what we can mentally, intellectually, and emotionally to preserve our own ideals when they’re challenged. To make sense of all this when the unthinkable happens, I reflexively, sometimes subconsciously, engage in thought experiments. What “should” humanity include? What “must” it exclude? There must, I’ve often thought, be some people who lag behind in the self-domestication process. There’s us, and there’s them. There’s civilized, and there’s barbaric. There’s humane, and there’s inhumane.
But whether I like it or not, human and humane have two very different meanings. If a human being does something, it is de facto human. “Nothing human is alien to me.” It’s annoyingly resonant, isn’t it?
A few weeks ago, Phil and I watched “Grizzly Man,” one of my favorite films. In one of the more heartbreaking moments, Werner Herzog makes an astonishing observation. Timothy Treadwell, the man who chooses to live among the bears for 13 consecutive summers, cannot square the reality of nature with his sentimental world view. The fact that bears can eat their own cubs out of desperation did not fit into his idealized image of them. Nor could his perceived “connection” to them allow for such a fact. This childish and grandiose naïveté led to his death, and that of his girlfriend at the time. (Which, by the way, totally pushes my justice button.)
I see a distinct parallel between Treadwell and the rest of us. In rejecting what doesn’t fit with our ideology, we fail to see reality for what it is. And we suffer the consequences.
As we all know, humanity has too often been compelled to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Atran sees clear parallels between ISIS and Nazi Germany. He believes that brainwashing and religion aren’t responsible for these profound strains on our understanding of humanity. He credits something much more fundamental: the universal human yearning for transcendence. (?!)
Hidden Brain quotes George Orwell on Hitler:
“There is something deeply appealing about him… [Hitler] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
Since last summer, I’ve been sloooooowly plugging my way through Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann (who was once a resident of the Villa Aurora, one of our favorite performance spaces). It’s a fiction about “the life of the German composer Adrian Leverkuhn, as told by a friend.” Shortly after I listened to Hidden Brain, I read the following passage — which describes Germany at the beginning of World War I:
“War had broken out… it raced through our cities, raging in all the minds and hearts of men as terror, exaltation, and frenzied urgency, as the thrill of fate, the sense of power, the readiness to sacrifice… There is no denying that in our Germany its primary effect was elation and historical exuberance, the rapture of beginning anew and tossing the everyday aside, liberation from a global stagnation that could take us no farther, enthusiasm for the future, an appeal to duty and manliness — in short, a heroic festival.”
It occurred to me that Mann, Orwell, and Atran were all saying the same thing. No one thinks they or their group are evil. Rightly or wrongly, the Other earns that title. That fact has nothing to do with cultural relativism — or moral nihilism. It’s human nature. Transcendence, adhering to ideals, belonging to a group beyond the self — these are profoundly, universally seductive.
As a musician, I am no stranger to the pull of the transcendent. I chase it on a daily basis. I’ve made my career out of it. What professional success I enjoy owes everything to audiences chasing it for themselves. I promote it as vital to culture and to enrichment of spirit. Like many — no, like all — I’ve felt its gravitational pull since I was a child. But expanding our yearning for transcendence to include a road to darkness and brutality was new for me. I had associated it only with aesthetics, the ineffable, and the ennobling. I wondered anew if one of art’s vital functions could be to fulfill our human need for transcendence in ways I hadn’t considered before. Suddenly, the Bernstein quote seemed less far-reaching. Less grandiose, and more pragmatic.
Venezuela’s El Sistema, and the dramatic global impact it has had, came to mind. Any high school orchestra nerd can speak to transcendence, being part of a group, and pursuing ideals. “Our reply to violence” started to click for me. It was neither art nor its importance that was feeling different. It was the need for transcendence itself — and above all else, how art relates to it. (That said, I’m hardly advocating for an ISIS Orchestra as a critical instrument of world peace. Just look at the politics and interpersonal trickiness that inevitably arise within any orchestra.)
I started to see a natural connection between anthropology and philanthropy: the study of mankind on the one hand, and the love of mankind on the other. The sanest reply to violence emerged as understanding a human need and providing for it. Uncomfortably touchy-feely and simplistic as the Bernstein quotation seemed at first, I was now surprised by its rationality.
All this was on my mind when LACO performed a “Discover” concert focusing on Bach’s Cantatas. Our incredible conductor (and resident humanist) Jeffrey Kahane outdid himself in his lecture, which preceded a complete performance of “Wachet Auf.”
He began with the fundamental idea that, regardless of one’s own religious views, the music of Bach cannot be separated from his devout Christianity. He pointed out that it can still be spiritually meaningful to everyone, as it is to him — “a Jew who was born Jewish.”
Just prior to Jeff taking the stage, a man addressed the audience on behalf of the venue, which is owned and operated by the Worldwide Church of God, to invite them to worship. The juxtaposition was stark, and a touch uncomfortable. All the same, it was a necessary foundation for Jeff to lay. We then performed a few interesting musical examples to illustrate Jeff’s point. The last one was a musical depiction of Christ’s sacrifice. And that’s when things got interesting.
Jeff made a masterful and organic segue into three stories of real-life sacrifices — replies to violence, really — of the recent past. The first was about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi, who died in a concentration camp. The second was about Salah Farah, a Kenyan Muslim who died just a few days ago, having been shot by terrorists after refusing to be separated from Christians (with whom he was traveling by bus). To conclude, Jeff spoke of Zaevion Dobson, the boy who lost his life shielding three girls during a drive by shooting. Through the audience’s reverent silence, Jeff said that he can no longer hear the Bach aria in question without seeing the face of Zaevion Dobson. And that despite his great respect for psychology and neuroscience, neither will ever be able to explain what compels people to sacrifice themselves for others — just as science will never be able to explain the genius of Bach.
During intermission, it was hard to find the right words with which to thank Jeff. He was admirably bold in his commitment to a universal, humanistic, even musical spirituality. I was excited to play the Bach now that the audience had been primed so meaningfully. I congratulated Jeff, and said something to the effect of: “time for us to worship in our way.” He laughed, and said only: “or whatever.”
As an agnostic, that gets a big fat “amen” from me. But “whatever” the case may be: making music as a reply to violence was feeling more palpable, and making more sense, than ever.
by Maia Jasper White
I’m not much of a Star Wars fan. I’ve only recently — and partially — seen Episodes 4 and 5. (Partially, because I fell asleep during both viewings.) This has led people of all ages to inquire about my legitimacy as a citizen of Planet Earth.
For what it’s worth, I’m likewise ignorant of many other pop cultural tropes. Never ask me the lyrics to, well, any ubiquitous song. Somehow, I’m missing a chip necessary for the absorption of contemporary zeitgeist. While my high school peer group was committing the Top 40 to memory via osmosis, I was shedding tears over Debussy’s String Quartet. Many a friend’s head has shaken in dismay at my limited pop cultural knowledge. Feeling a bit out-of-the-loop is the price I’ve paid for a lifelong attraction to the (relatively) esoteric and arcane.
While this is not something I’m proud of, neither is it something I long to change. The case of cultural FOMO with which I am afflicted is mild. It has yet to inspire me to recalibrate my natural tastes.
Instead, I’d like to think my obliviousness endears me to others. When called for a Neil Young session a year or so ago, I asked my husband if the singer in question “was famous.” His response: “that would be the rock equivalent of asking if Jascha Heifetz is famous.” (Duly noted.)
Imagine, then, my strange good fortune in playing a tiny part in the latest installment of Star Wars.
Alex Ross wrote a thoughtful piece on John Williams and “The Force Awakens.” In this post, I’ll share some of my memories and experiences recording the score.
Prior to “The Force Awakens,” I’d played my fair share of Williams’ music in concert. The intricacy and integrity of his writing always demands a certain level of quality from your playing. This demand is a hallmark of, well… good music.
Alex Ross writes:
“After “Star Wars,” [Williams] became a sound, a brand. The diversity and occasional daring of the composer’s earlier work—I’m thinking not only of “Close Encounters” but also of Robert Altman’s “Images” and “The Long Goodbye” and of Brian De Palma’s “The Fury”—subsided over time. Williams invariably achieves a level of craftsmanship that no other living Hollywood composer can match; his fundamental skill is equally evident in his sizable catalogue of concert-hall scores. Yet he’s been boxed in by the billions that his music has helped to earn. He has become integral to a populist economy on which thousands of careers depend.”
Because everything about the movie was kept under lock and key, they put out a fake name (“AVCO”) for the call. But everyone knew what it was. And not just because the main title on the stand gave it away.
The LA studio musician scene was abuzz with excitement. Scoring the movie in LA, by union musicians, was a significant and timely coup. Significant, because every prior Star Wars films had been recorded in London. Timely, because the LA studio community has, for years now, been in a heated debate. The topic: how can we compete with outsourcing, and the threat to our livelihood it poses?
For many reasons, everyone brought their A Game for these sessions. People dressed sharply, arrived even earlier than usual, and came prepared. (Session music isn’t typically sent to the musicians ahead of time; this was.) Eating and drinking on the stand were prohibited. Suffice it to say that these were Sudoku-free sessions. Chit-chat, too, was at a minimum.
The quiet excitement in the room was palpable. So was deep respect for John Williams. Applause and smiles greeted him every day, and thanked him at the end. The room hung on his every word, whether he was telling a story or delivering musical notes. His comments revealed an understanding that few other living film composers match.
As proud last chair second violin, I sat in front of the french horn section. At one point during Kylo Ren’s theme, Williams asked them to tongue something differently. I can’t remember what, exactly, he wanted. His knowledge of the instruments of the orchestra is what came through — with a depth and class that is rare.
The players delivered accordingly. Everyone sounded fantastic. I was especially proud of two close friends, Jessica Pearlman Fields and Ben Smolen. (Ben will play the voice of Ferdinand the Bull in Salastina’s February concert.) Another good friend, Jenni Olson, wrote her own blog post about her experiences playing flute on the score. They killed everything they played, and left a strong impression on everyone in the room. Watching friends shine never grows stale.
Williams himself kept remarking on the caliber of the horn section. They sounded so fantastic, he said, that he was certain he’d be the envy of every film composer around. I loved sitting closest to the beast that is Andrew Bain. Hearing him steel himself before each entrance was inspiring, as was his consistent and impeccable delivery.
And I’m proud to share that some of the horn players got something out of sitting near me.
Let me explain.
Playing in the studios can be, oh, a bit nerve-wracking. Once the red light comes on, no audible flaws are permitted. Clearing your throat alone can ruin a take. To get out my juju in a silent, non-disruptive way, I like to play with tangle toys. During a break, one of the horn players approached me. He told me he drives his colleagues nuts by bouncing his knee up and down in rapid-fire succession. He wanted to know about my fidget toy. He and another horn player are now converts. (Yes, this is me taking partial credit for how good the horns sounded. Anytime, John… anytime.)
Kevin beamed — grimaced, more like it — while playing what I later learned was the Millenium Falcon theme. (“I’m geeking out so hard right now!” he squealed, through bugged eyes and clenched teeth.) Even I recognized a fair amount of themes from the original films. But the new ones worked so well in context that I had to consult with my husband to make sure they were, in fact, new.
Rey’s theme, beautifully played by Gloria Cheng, stuck in my head for days. And once I knew which themes were new and which were throwbacks, I better appreciated how they worked together. There was a lot of ingenious counterpoint happening between them. And the interplay of these themes allowed for a fun guessing game: based on the musical material, what might be happening in the plot?
Due to the top-secret nature of the film, the footage wasn’t shown on a large screen behind us, like it usually is. One of my friends, a harp player, was able to see Williams’ personal monitor from where she was sitting. She was also privy to a few hushed exchanges between JJ Abrams and Williams.
On one such occasion, she deduced the death of a major character. After the session, she confided: “I don’t know if I was supposed to see that. Seems like a big spoiler!” It’s a good thing she, like me, is not a die-hard fan. That’s why she told me. (And no — neither of us ruined it for anyone.)
JJ Abrams and Williams’ relationship was something to behold. JJ thanked Williams many times over in the most sincere, touching, and gracious ways. Although the recording studio was clearly Williams’ kingdom, he was nothing if not genteel and humble sovereign. He shushed applause each time he received it — which was often. Daily, in fact. Each day felt as though he were receiving both a lifetime achievement award and a grateful, reverent embrace from the room. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for him to know his music has touched billions of people in profound ways; sustained an industry; and inspired countless artists, likely well beyond his own lifetime. To know — at 83 — that he was making film music history in the here-and-now. It was a privilege to observe.
He seemed truly humbled by the scope of his own life’s work. All this reminded me of one of my favorite quotations (from Nabokov’s autobiography, “Speak, Memory”):
“It is certainly not then—not in dreams—but when one is wide awake, in moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction.”
Williams referred to every ten-minute break as “intermission,” and to his players as “people.” (“Alright people; we’ll take intermission now.”) And he thanked all of his people for the stellar jobs they did. This included Bill Ross for conducting when Williams couldn’t. It also included Mark Graham and his team for music prep. Our friend Paul, giddy in his own introverted way, was part of this orchestration team. He shared that orchestrating for Williams involved nothing but transcribing clear intentions. Williams was exacting in what he wanted from each specific player. There was no guesswork required; no lines to be colored in.
I myself summoned the courage to thank JJ Abrams for two things. One, for his advocacy for scoring in LA; and two, for inadvertently introducing me to my husband because of it. When I shared that Philip and I met while scoring his show “Revolution,” JJ said I’d “made his day.” That made me laugh, seeing as the day in question was the final day of scoring “The Force Awakens.” What a mensch.
I lacked the courage, though, to get my photo taken with John Williams. Kevin wasn’t so sheepish.
Kevin and I missed two sessions. Sadly, one of them was on October 12th — when they recorded the main title and end credits. With none other than Gustavo Dudamel as surprise conductor. Even I did a headdesk when I heard that news. Happily, the reason we weren’t there was because our Yosemite wedding was the day before. (Kevin was the officiant.) Luckily for us, we were there when they re-recorded the main title and end credits later on.
And we missed a session in June because it conflicted with a Salastina performance. That, too, fell under the category of “worth it.” Same went for the cast & crew screening, which conflicted with a rehearsal of our Chamber Messiah. Thankfully, my recent husband did not divorce me over this transgression.
We saw the movie in the theater shortly after it came out. I cannot tell you how tickled I was to be able to hum along to themes that were unknown to everyone else in the theater.
Just don’t ask me for a plot summary.
By Kevin Kumar
Here is how we’d like to respond when someone asks: “What is chamber music?”
“Imagine that you’re in a space designed to beautifully transmit vibrations. You’re sharing that space with a handful of people, musicians who have spent decades refining and mastering their instruments or voices. They’re bringing to life the creations of some of the greatest creative human spirits, using the most perfectly designed acoustic tools. They produce vibrations, use them to communicate what is most poignant in the human condition; they shake the air to communicate with each other in an incredibly intimate way, and share their collective vibrations with you. You’re in this space, where honesty, generosity of spirit, a surfeit of beauty, are resonating like crazy. And you begin resonating with it all. Existence is laid bare and its secrets are revealed. What are we all sharing? That life is beauty, pain and joy are beauty, that things are more glorious than they seem, that we can share this beauty with each other in this way and so are not as alone as we secretly fear…”
But that might be awkward.
Typically, being asked to perform on a concert series involves individual preparation and group rehearsal time before walking out on stage – and hopefully accomplishing what’s written above once there. But there are countless other details that go into creating a memorable concert experience: choosing that special space, conceiving a program that will keep the audience (and musicians) inspired, choosing players who will be sympathetic to each other’s musical impulses and personalities, leading rehearsals with an atmosphere of experimentation while still maintaining direction and focus, spreading the word about performances, building support within the community, and generally overseeing all aspects of concert production most likely to result in the kind of experience described above.
This is what you undertake when you create, direct, and perform in a chamber music series. We started the Salastina Music Society because of the joy we described in our hypothetical answer (and the fulfillment of making it happen from start to finish). We’ll be using this blog to share what happens behind the scenes. Check back often for guest artist interviews, special information about upcoming concerts, and other ramblings!